This article originally appeared on my blog, and is my fanboy-esque take on most of the great noise/rock band Skullflower’s studio and live albums, from theit Black Flag debut to 2011’s Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament. I hope I do them justice.
Approaching the daunting monolith that is Skullflower‘s discography would take the patience of a saint and pockets deeper than Donald Trump’s (if you want to meet such a hardy soul, check out this superlative list by my online buddy, “Nightwrath”: http://rateyourmusic.com/list/nightwrath/the_power_of_skullflower/). So, typical of my general laziness, I’m not going to try to give a proper overview/blow-by-blow analysis/history lesson, just give my take on those albums I have (generally the most easily purchasable ones) and how I have come to regard Skullflower as nothing less than one of the best bands ever to grace the world.
The history of Skullflower is intrinsically linked to the UK underground of the early eighties, which exploded to life in the wake of punk, lurching into more unusual, dark and experimental directions as it did so. The advent of cheaper recording formats, notably cassette tapes, simple electronic instruments and easy-to-use recording methods meant that music was no longer the exclusive domain of classical composers or pop/rock/jazz bands with studio access and lots of ability. Indeed, punk, for all its numerous flaws, had shown that anyone with a good idea and lots of attitude could make a record and even, wonder of wonders, get it released.
Less physical barriers were also coming down. Even as the country as a whole was embracing rabid conservatism, in the form of Margaret Thatcher’s government, the musical underground was getting more radical. Throbbing Gristle, who remain to this day the granddaddies of radical British music, and the scene’s eternal leading lights, had led the way, exploring transgressive and provocative themes, and giving birth to a new genre of music they baptised “Industrial”. Out of their explorations of extreme sound and lyrical matter, the UK underground would bloom.
I will admit to not being an expert, but, it seems to me that, until these halcyon years from 1977 to 1985, Britain had never had a truly “out-there” act that could serve as a calling card to the rest of the underground. The US, of course, had had The Velvet Underground, whilst Japan had seen Les Rallizes Denudes headline massive festivals, and Germany had given us the freak-out post-everything of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream‘s first album. Which is not to say the UK had not had great underground acts (Pink Fairies, anyone?), but the extremism and provocation of those foreign bands had yet to really be mirrored in such conceptual glory in this country. Throbbing Gristle changed all that, and Whitehouse, Ramleh and, of course, Skullflower, took things to another level altogether. In typical British fashion, of course, none of them -past the initial shock value of TG and Whitehouse- caused quite the stir that The VU or The Stooges did among mainstream audiences, even those inclined towards “fringe” sounds. In this country, we venerate at the altars of alien gods, but if the same souls emerge on our shores, we just can’t believe it to be real… Or so it seems from the vantage point of youth (such as it is). Otherwise, I fail to understand how The Velvet Underground or The Stooges managed to burrow their way into cultdom among British rock fans, but Skullflower remain mostly unknown. I’m lucky in many ways to have come along decades after much of the music I love hit its heights, but am aware that often my perceptions can be skewed or unrealistic. I’m doing my best to represent things as they were, I promise!
Of course, any talk of Skullflower means nothing if you don’t mention the man behind such an illustrious musical entity. His name is Matt Bower, and his shadow soars over the UK underground like some mystical but outlandish eagle, even if his influence has rarely been mirrored in record sales. More than William Bennett or even his buddy Gary Mundy, and perhaps only equaled by Steve Stapleton and David Tibet, Matt Bower is the voice, guitar and effects box of the UK underground. And Skullflower remains, even after such magnificent side projects as Total, Sunroof!, Hototogisu and Voltigeurs, the supreme expression of Bower’s vision.
The birth of Skullflower was slow and progressive, growing out of several Uni/high school bands involving Bower, Alex Binnie, Stewart Dennison, Stefan Jaworzyn and others. At one time, Bower was a key member of Gary Mundy’s superb power electronics/drone metal outfit Ramleh, and the first Bower albums, first as Total then as Skullflower, would appear on Mundy’s seminal Broken Flag label.
Which is as good a place as any to start, given that, having already made a power electronics splash solo as Total, on Broken Flag, Bower would unleash Skullflower on the world via that very label. I remain convinced that the UK underground, and metal/noise music in general, would never be the same again from the moment BFV9 hit the shelves.
Birthdeath (Broken Flag, 1988)
As Skullflower’s first proper release, Birthdeath is essential listening to any fan of the band, or any of Bower’s subsequent adventures. It’s most interesting to listen to in the context of what Broken Flag was releasing at the time. Broken Flag had become renowned as a post-Industrial, power electronics label, with albums by Maurizio Bianchi and Grey Wolves among its numerous tape releases. Extreme stuff indeed. And whilst Birthdeath, with its creepy title and oppressive atmosphere, certainly fit the mold, it was also very different, for a start because it featured “real” instruments, with guitars, bass and drums taking precedence over fucked-up synths or electronics.
And yet, of all Skullflower releases, Birthdeath perhaps feels most consistent with the age in which it was made. The loping bass lines are 100% post-punk, evoking such post-punk luminaries as Joy Division or PiL. Not a bad thing of course, and Bower’s vocals are notably brilliant, a Rotten-esque snarl that is nonetheless wrenched back into the mix, subsumed by rampant guitar noise and insistent percussion, therefore taking the music beyond post-punk and into a neo-metal environment that would later give us My Bloody Valentine and Ride. With a darkness and menace that was 100% TG/Whitehouse/This Heat. Birthdeath may be short (it’s an EP after all) and very “rock”, it remains one of the first indications of where industrial music, as a “rock” derivative, and metal could go. Skullflower would between 1988 and 1995 show just how magnificent such a combination would be.
Form Destroyer (Broken Flag, 1989)
If Birthdeath gave a hint, and tentatively brought metal (I’m talking Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult metal of the darkest kind, here) back into the orbit of the underground, away from the nonsense zone the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest had taken it to, Form Destroyer, and the slew of albums that followed it, would elevate the Skullflower sound into the realms of genius. Dark, metal-meets-industrial-post-punk genius.
Form Destroyer dispenses with a lot of the familiarity that Birthdeath had built up. Fuck the Peter Hook-ish bass and punkish sneer vocals. This is Bower bowing down at the altar of guitar noise, taking the power electronics template of Ramleh and Whitehouse and filtering it through riff-upon-riff of messed up power chords, as if Tony Iommi had shed his hippy leanings and then been given full reign of the Sabbath’s musical direction. Opening track “Elephant’s Graveyard” is everything that makes Skullflower so special, a non-stop guitar solo backed by ridiculously heavy post-Bill Ward drums and one-note bass whilst Bower limply utters unintelligible lyrics as if he’s drowning in guitar mulch. The tremolo and fuzz are obscene, and the track hoists itself out of any noise/industrial context into dark, cavernous realms of new metal. The kind of metal that would have Julian Cope salivating. Where power electronics and industrial seemed to reflect the clunking, metallic, buzzing present/future, here was music that felt older than time itself, as if long-lost gods and angels were rising from centuries of slumber to reclaim the world. This ur-plod echoed that of Sabbath, but stripped away any modern context, becoming the sound of dusty pyramids, creepy barrows and pagan monoliths. And of course, this became the template for the next 25 years (and counting) of metal music, the dots between Form Destroyer and bands like SUNN O))) or Nadja being all too easy to connect.
Xaman (Shock Records, 1990)
Shock Records were owned by Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn who was, until he left the band in the early nineties following one too many fall-outs with Bower, the other main creative figure of the band. Having said that, mega fans such as myself will always treasure the contributions of drummer Stewart Dennison at least as much as those of Jaworzyn. There’s just something so perfect about Dennison’s monolithic plod, and it would drive and animate the Skullflower sound in inimitable ways at least until the band’s first dissolution in 1996.
Xaman is, in my opinion, the first perfect Skullflower statement. It’s more abstract than Form Destroyer, despite also being more “metal”. Its predecessor maintained a tiny, tiny, bit of the post-punk soul of Birthdeath, which somehow made it less abstract than this, or future albums. By releasing themselves into metal and noise, equal parts Sabbathian plod and Rallizes-esque guitar saturation, Skullflower grew into a monstrous beast, whose tracks were built around ridiculous sub-Crazy Horse rhythmic plods whilst Jaworzyn and Bower leaped into the stratosphere via their guitars, endlessly soloing as each piece, from opening pounder “Slaves” to the side-long, 26-minute-long beast “Wave” soared and rumbled like a mythological mountain detaching itself from the earth and taking off towards the heavens (I have no idea what that metaphor means, but it seems to fit).
As someone who listens to a lot of metal music, I have tried to find a comparable album to Xaman, another such premonitory opus that indicates where the genre was going to go, and indeed spend the next 20 years. I can’t. Sure, Swans took the Sabbath’s slowed-down sound and married it to industrial clanging, but Xaman is something else altogether – its background in industrial is only hinted at through walls of noise, but mostly this is pure doom, primeval and heavier than that lead zeppelin Keith Moon mentioned all those decades ago. Xaman features guitar played as Jimmy Page should have played it back in ’68, a non-stop riff-o-mania mixed with basic solos, so insistent that its meaning becomes unfathomable. Guitar as noise. Guitar as drone. Guitar as trance. Xaman is truly overwhelming, and for me feels like the culmination of what brutish heavy metal, as dreamed up by Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, was always meant to be. I wish someone would hurry up and re-release this motherfucker!
IIIrd Gatekeeper (HeadDirt, 1992)
Until Bower resuscitated Skullflower in the mid-2000s, IIIrd Gatekeeper was perhaps the most famous of the band’s albums, and incidentally one of the absolute best.
Essentially, IIIrd Gatekeeper is modern metal in excelsis. Do you like Nadja? The Angelic Process? Hey Colossus? Boris? Here’s the blueprint. With the -possible- exceptions of The Melvins and Earth, I don’t think any band really set down a marker on the genre in quite the way Skullflower did on IIIrd Gatekeeper. Of course, I’ve been talking about metal since Birthdeath, so what changed? Sitting here in my living room, my head filled with sound, the first thing that occurs to me is the bass. It’s no longer subsumed into the mix – it’s front and centre, big, fat, distorted and powerful. Almost a second lead guitar. Imagine Jefferson Airplane‘s legendary bassist Jack Casady doing metal, and you might just get the sound I’m evoking. If you’re an Airplane fan. If not, then fuck me, just go out and buy IIIrd Gatekeeper!
Mirroring this added heaviness, the drums are equally in-your-face, slovenly punches to the skins that inch the melodies along. The whole production is clearer and more typically heavy-metal-ish, with Bower’s guitar (he was now sole axeman following the departure of Jaworzyn) creating scything walls of relentless distortion, feedback and fuzz. Again, there are no riffs in the traditional Sabbath/Zeppelin style, just endless, near-formless soloing, taking the format laid down by those bands, and hurtling into something closer to free improv or drone. But Skullflower never relinquishes the violence and heaviness that makes metal such a haven for headbangers. Tracks like “Larks Tongues” (neat King Crimson reference!) and “Saturnalia” are like Sabbath on LSD, twisted, beyond-heavy crunchers that pummel the senses under waves of guitar noise and thunderous drumming. The vocals, meanwhile, are almost a prototype of the kind of harsh, muted growling that would soon become a staple of Black Metal.
Perhaps the overall sound and vibe of IIIrd Gatekeeper is a reflection of the man who released it. HeadDirt was the imprint of Justin K Broadrick, long a devotee of Skullflower, now of Jesu and Greymachine, who at the time was riding high as an industrial metal pioneer via his Godflesh outfit. Like Skullflower, Godflesh was a seminal band, melding harsh urban noises with a vintage metal pummel and bleak lyrical output. It was not any more ferocious than what Bower and co were doing in their Broken Flag days, but perhaps slightly more tailored towards the mainstream. Ever so slightly. In comparison, Skullflower would always be an outsider band, but at least Broadrick was keen to give some time int he limelight. To this day, IIIrd Gatekeeper remains the most common first point of entry for people discovering Skullflower.
Last Shot at Heaven (Noiseville, 1993)
Skullflower goes psychedelic!!! Of course, records like Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper were already darkly psychedelic, in a typically Cope-esque manner. But Last Shot at Heaven moves things up a notch in the trippy bliss levels, whilst maintaining an edge of violence and menace, as demonstrated by the cover art depicting a young woman craning her head back, eyes seemingly shut in ecstasy, but which is actuallty a picture of one of the first Muslim victims of the Bosnian ethnic cleansing taken just as she was being shot.
Indeed, one of the great pleasures of being a Skullflower fan is picking up on the subtle -or sometimes radical- sonic shifts they make as they advance from one album to another, and picking up on the understated metaphors in both their music and artwork.
The basic template inherited from IIIrd Gatekeeper, of harsh guitar soloing, pumping bass and earthquake-inducing drums, is retained on LSAH, but where its predecessor focused on the drums and the bass and the mood, this motherfucker is a massive guitar celebration, as Bower rips outlandish warped noise from his beleaguered axe, creating the kind of sonic tornado that, along with the blistering poly-rhythmic pounding of the drums as displayed here on “Rotten Sun li”, would later become a key component of bands like Acid Mother’s Temple, Mainliner or even Oneida. The guitar no longer incarnates a phallic extension of the macho Jimmy Page-esque frontman, nor is it a means to subvert conventions in the manner of Stoogian riffage. Instead, it’s a supremely cosmic weapon of pure transcendence, a beautifully awe-inspiring sound to transport the listener to new-found inner worlds. In that respect, Last Shot at Heaven feels most noticeably “retro” among early Skullflower albums, channeling as it does the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel, Les Rallizes Denudes and Amon Duul II.
Beyond that, however, Last Shot at Heaven is another bold step forwards for Skullflower. As steeped as it is in the post-psychedelia of the early 70s, it doesn’t fully deviate from the deep, doomy metal thunder of its predecessor. But, more significantly, it also gives many a sideways glance at the grunge and shoegaze styles that were prevalent in the early nineties. More Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine than Slowdive and Nirvana, of course, but you can tell Bower has heard the merits of adding a sprinkle of catchiness and riffs into the torrent of noise and sludge. Opener “Caligula” may just be the most infectious, and blissful, Skullflower track ever. Ultimately, Last Shot at Heaven gets negatively compared to IIIrd Gatekeeper, a more complete musical statement, but it serves as a great indication of how fantastically consistent in their brilliance Skullflower were by this point.
Obsidian Shaking Codex (Self-released, 1993, CD-R reissue on RRRecords)
Nothing, even Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper, prepared me for Obsidian Shaking Codex. Those albums were great, magnificent even. OSC is on another plane altogether.
Almost literally. Obsidian Shaking Codex sounds like very little out there, and certainly not like anything released around the same time, again testament to how prescient and forward-thinking Skullflower were. I think it was discovering this album that made me realise that not only are Skullflower a fucking awesome band, but that actually they go beyond such platitudes and transcend all stereotypical notions of musical taste and quality. Obsidian Shaking Codex sets up the stall for just about every psych/drone/noise-metal band to have appeared since, taking the brittle exoskeleton of The Dead C and Les Rallizes Denudes, and anchoring it to a wall of post-modern, post-industrial noise before launching into newer, wilder, nastier and deeper sonic lands. Tracks like “Sir Bendalot”, the pummeling heavy metal opener, may seem familiarly heavy, in a Sabbath/Blue Cheer vein, but, stripped of coherent vocals and suffused with mysterious flute sounds, soon turn into weird, esoteric and unhinged musical explorations.
By “Circular Temple”, the second track, everything you may have been familiar with has collapsed. Not just Skullflower’s own sound, but British post-industrial music as a genre. Coil, Whitehouse and even Throbbing Gristle seem so very far away now. The track is essentially, beautifully, formless, an endless dirge of shuddering guitar noise, in which riffs, improvs and meandering solos slalom around each other and drum fills only interrupt the murky flow on occasion, like interjections from a slumbering giant whose rest has been interrupted by the screes and squalls of Bower’s guitar. No, I don’t know what I’m on about either! Obsidian Shaking Codex does that to you – its awkward grace and deep, dark drones will have you dreaming of windy barrows and Tolkien-esque vistas, but ones that are totally dominated by sinister shadows, gnarled tree trunks and whispering ghosts. By the album’s end, the frenetic post-rock, post-fusion -fuck it, post-everything!- 25-minute leviathan that is “Smoke Jaguar”, you find yourself drifting in a fog of sound. It isn’t quite noise, not quite ambient, not quite drone, not quite metal. It’s beyond all of those genres, a true artistic triumph, which Skullflower would often struggle to replicate later in their career, but which would also flash through all their releases here on, and was already hovering like a shadow over previous albums, notably Xaman, IIIrd Gatekeeper and Last Shot at Heaven. Obsidian Shaking Codex is the album they really nailed it on, and the one that would make even great metal-that-aren’t-metal acts like SUNN O))) seem slightly derivative.
A masterpiece in other words.
Carved Into Roses (VHF, 1994)
Skullflower signed to psychedelic drone label VHF for this release, who would also release This Is Skullflower, a mini-trend that perhaps highlights the band’s slow shift (already hinted at on Last Shot at Heaven) away from doom-laden noise-metal towards more esoteric, trippy and psyched-up musical shores.
At this point, I am seriously running out of superlative terms to describe the sounds Matt Bower and his acolytes (by now even superb bassist Anthony DiFranco had left, so it was just Bower and drummer Stuart Dennison, plus guest appearances from Whitehouse’s Phillip Best, Russell Smith and Simon Wickham-Smith) were coming up with. It seems in fact that each release was purposely conjured up to surpass its predecessor and, whilst Carved into Roses probably had too hard an act to follow in Obsidian Shaking Codex, it at least represents a massive leap forwards from all their other previous albums that it remains one of Skullflower’s most important statements.
Some critics have -erroneously, I think- said that Carved into Roses represents a “mellowing” of the Skullflower sound. Whilst the crunching post-riffage of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Obsidian Shaking Codex‘s molten noise are indeed (mostly) set aside, the idea that Carved into Roses is more ambient or “quieter” than its predecessors is, frankly, ludicrous.
But it is more sophisticated, more thoughtful and, ultimately, even more adventurous. Five years before Japanese genius Merzbow showed the smart side of harsh noise on Door Open at 8am, Skullflower were doing the same for metal with Carved into Roses, by incorporating the usually intimidating structures of free-form jazz into their monolithic metal crunch. They once again throw a wee curve ball on opener “Pipe Dream”, which could be straight out of Last Shot At Heaven with its doom/drone guitar mulch, bursts of feedback and stark vibe, although hints of the mayhem to come can be heard in Stuart Dennison’s scattered drumming and some spookily industrial vocal snippets. But by “The Rose Wallpaper”, Dennison is conjuring up marching band patterns and, out of nowhere, as Bower excoriates his guitar in masochistic metallic bursts of fury, a lonesome, strangled saxophone blearily attempts a garbled solo. It dips in and out of the mix, in time to the accelerations and decelerations of Dennison’s increasingly free-form pounding of the toms, and its intrusion into the world of Skullflower is as startling as it is welcome. The more unstructured nature of “The Rose Wallpaper”, “Shiny Birds of Doom” or “Metallurgical King” (all three contenders for the imaginary title of ‘Best Skullflower track ever’) not only make Carved Into Roses stand out as a truly masterful melding of jazz/improv and metal, but also showcase the increased subtlety and sophistication of Dennison and Bower as composers and musicians. “Metallurgical King”, which seems to pick up where “The Rose Wallpaper” left off, is a particularly mighty slab of free-form noise, with bonkers tremolo and the kind of sax mayhem Peter Brotzmann would be proud of.
As for the claims that it isn’t heavy… I can admit it is no longer a cruncher, in the Butthole Surfers/Sabbath mold. But the atmosphere on these tracks is easily as choking and menacing as on any of the Obsidian Shaking Codex ones, Best’s voice often descending into a tortured primal scream, whilst Bower and Dennison alternate expertly between hard-hitting free-form pummelers and dragging, inching doom plods. Such shifts in pace, power and tempo are mastered expertly and, if anything, Carved Into Roses is one of Skullflower’s heaviest albums ever. The follow-up, Infinityland is also a cracker, and both have recently been reissued as a triple CD set, along with a disc of singles.
This Is Skullflower (VHF,1996)
This would be the last album Skullflower would release before a 7-year hiatus (following swiftly on the heels of a slightly rag-bag collection of shorter tracks, outtakes and covers called Transformer, also released in ’96). Between this and Carved Into Roses, the duo did release two other full releases, Argon (Freek, 1995) and Infinityland (HeadDirt, 1995), neither of which I’ve been able to get hold of, sadly.
I would be keen to check out both those records because This Is Skullflower represents such a dramatic shift from the sound of Carved Into Roses, that it would be nice to get an idea of what came before to see if there is any continuity.
Essentially, TIS sees them taking the idea of free jazz grasped at on Carved Into Roses, and fucking running the distance with it. It is indeed much mellower and atmospheric than their previous output, even in the track titles – “Lounge”, “Creaky Rigging”, “Glider”… But don’t be fooled into thinking that it therefore is less interesting or arresting. Skullflower continue to step boldly into new territories, bringing in piano and strings, whilst pursuing their exploration of the limitations and possibilities of their established drums and guitars. On “Lounge”, Dennison pushes the free-jazz boat out even further, coming on like a latter-day Han Bennink, whilst Bower’s searing guitar improv is offset by jarring piano motifs. It’s a textured and unusual piece, and things get even better on “Creaky Rigging”, which duly lives up to its name thanks to Tony Conrad-esque violin drones set over what sounds like a woozy dobro or sitar and far-off, hazy guitar lines. It’s easily the best track on the album, redolent of such great tantric drone/psych bands as Vibracathedral Orchestra and the pioneering work of European bands such as Parson Sound and Yatha Sidhra. Heady stuff indeed, Skullflower going hippy, if you like.
Which may in many ways be the album’s only real flaw. The quality, as usual, is phenomenal, in terms of musicality and composition, but some of the dark, paranoid atmospheres of previous albums have succumbed to the experimentation, it seems. Maybe, just this once, Skullflower gave too much to the cerebral where before there was always just enough instinct and spleen to get the absolutely perfect balance. Either way, it’s still a fucking good album, but perhaps Bower was right to call it quits for a while…
Though it would have been magic to see where exploring the sound of the album’s other stand-out track, the drone epic “The Pirate Ship of Reality is Moving Out…” could have led the band…
Exquisite Fucking Boredom (tUMULt, 2003)
After a 7-year gap, during which Matthew Bower parted company with Stuart Dennison and dedicated his inspirations to a revived Total and his new outfits Sunroof! and Hototogisu, Skullflower returned, like a phoenix resurrected in flames. I can imagine there was some trepidation, and a shed-load of expectation, among fans at the time and so it is perhaps fitting that Exquisite Fucking Boredom is probably the most accessible of the new-look Skullflower albums. Ease’em in gently, eh Matt?
Exquisite Fucking Boredom essentially feels like a dual continuation of what Bower was doing on Last Shot at Heaven, but filtered through the trippier textures and hazy drones of This Is Skullflower. The result is an album that is both heavy, showcasing Bower’s relentless guitar assault, and blissfully psychedelic, in a fucked-up, Brainticket way. Most of it is taken up by the 4-part magnum opus “Celestial Highway”, which takes a funkily ambling sixties’ garage-psych rhythm base (think a more monolithic Doors or Thirteenth Floor Elevators) and runs with it over nearly an hour, albeit one divided into segments. Head music in the extreme, as the drums (credits are hard to come by for much of Skullflower’s output, but apparently, this is one of the occasional latter-period albums to feature Stuart Dennison, as well as additional guitarist Mark Burns -for the unusually-prominent riffs?- and bassist Steve Martin) send things cantering metronomically and minimalistically along with bloody-minded determination, much as drummer Werner Diermaier did for Faust on their magnificent collaboration with Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate, which leaves Bower and Burns free to belch out dirty, fat riffs that jingle and jangle whilst maintaining their metal edge, before throwing up a miasma of wah-wahing free-form noise over the top. Somewhere in the mix there’s also an ever-droning organ, just to ram home the sense of sheer elegiac spaciness, should you need it.
If this is boredom, then I want to be bored more often! It’s easily Skullflower’s grooviest, sexiest and most liberated album, without any of the intellectual inhibitions of This Is Skullflower, but still maintaining a hazy, psychedelic vibe that means it’s not just a throw-back to the early nineties. Its only flaw perhaps is that it would have worked better with just the “Celestial Highway” suite, as the other two tracks, “Saturn” and “Return to Forever” don’t really add anything to the album. But that’s a small quibble. With Exquisite Fucking Boredom, Matthew Bower announced that Skullflower was back in a big way, and he has not looked back since. Lucky us!
Orange Canyon Mind (Crucial Blast, 2005)
On the second album since his “comeback” as Skullflower, Matthew Bower followed in the footsteps of Exquisite Fucking Boredom, in that Orange Canyon Mind feels at times like it’s a refreshing, or post-digital update, of his previous sound. Exquisite Fucking Boredom seemed to tap into the nascent heavy psych trend of Oneida, Colour Haze and Comets on Fire, whilst still maintaining a darker undercurrent and taste for much more intense, violent and improvised guitar noise, as had been Skullflower’s modus operandi since Birthdeath. Orange Canyon Mind sees Bower, accompanied by a couple of guests on guitar and occasional drums, incorporate harsh electronic sounds, but not as some throwback to the power electronics scene Skullflower evolved out of, but rather as an echo of the glitch and harsh electronica espoused by the Editions Mego label and artists like Ryoji Ikeda and -more harshly- Kevin Drumm. Of course, whilst still indulging in fuzzed and distorted guitars and deep heavy metal textures.
Orange Canyon Mind is therefore one of Skullflower’s most varied and eclectic albums, certainly among their post-2003 output, which is enjoyable, but also possibly undermines its consistency a bit. The exquisite title track feels like Neu! on downers, a pulsating “motorik” back-beat being offset against a dense wall of guitar pyrotechnics. “Annihilating Angel”, in which shuddering glitchtronica textures battle with a never-ending wah solo, is another one of the band’s great moments, a dense, punishing, unforgiving masterpiece of atmosphere and volume, that shows that Bower has lost none of his ability to oppress and terrify.
Later tracks seem to jerk between such monstrously claustrophobic drone/noise workout, and more “traditional” (in the loosest sense of the word!) post-metal plodders, with prominent wah guitar and meandering subdued percussion, as on “Vampire’s Breath” and “Ghost Ice Aliens”, both full-blooded sludgy rockers that again evoke the heavier end of modern psychedelia, such as Serpentina Satelite. “Goat of a Thousand Young”, meanwhile, is a creepy industrial-electronic piece, perhaps suggesting in texture, if not actual style, the direction Bower would take on Tribulation.
The eclecticism of Orange Canyon Mind certainly underlines the musical vitality and strength of this singular band, but at times plays against it in terms of consistency. That said, I’d still call it required listening, if nothing else then for “Annihilating Angel”, “Starry Wisdom”, “Orange Canyon Mind” and the overall atmosphere of doom and darkness (and above all because it’s a fucking Skullflower album!).
Tribulation (Crucial Blast, 2006)
When you hit the “play” button on your stereo, Tribulation doesn’t start so much as keep going. The opening track “Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star” seems to surge out of the speakers mid-riff, if such momentous noise can be called a riff, and you feel like you have stumbled, unheeded, onto a rehearsal or, perhaps more aptly, some weird, menacing ritual. This is Skullflower (here just Matthew Bower on guitar, occasional electronics and sporadic percussion) reaching heights of extreme sonic mayhem, and the only album Bower has released under this moniker that could more or less comfortably be classified in the “noise” genre.
Indeed, at times, this could almost be the sort of wall noise espoused so eloquently and dramatically by the likes of The Rita, Vomir and Werewolf Jerusalem. Although, unlike those acts, Bower’s emphasis remains on guitar and minimal electronics, plus a healthy dose of SUNN O)))-esque doom atmosphere, albeit buried in some of the harshest sounds yet to come from Skullflower. “Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star” is a case in point, a monolithic cathedral of guitar feedback, raging distortion and high-pitched screes. All forward momentum, in the traditional musical sense, is lost, the piece just sits, static and angry, and unloads. It’s impenetrable. And the whole album follows this deranged model, from the more brittle rasping of “Saragossa”, in which a choked guitar solo is subsumed by a wall of high-pitched distortion, to the feedback overload and doom-laden chords of “Dwarf Thunderbolt”, via the chattering electronic screes of “Dying Venice”. Tribulation is an ear-shattering onslaught that stretches over an hour before ending as abruptly as it started, and one of the most uncompromising albums in the Skullflower catalogue, and indeed of any band, ever.
But even as the different tracks melt into one another without pause, the shifts I mentioned above, as the guitars recede ever-so-slightly to let in clatters of digital noise, for example, mean that to call Tribulation a noise album would pretty much be as redundant as calling it a metal one. Tribulation can actually be seen as a release from such categorisation, as Bower uses his guitar noise to channel dark, mysterious and occult themes in a purely abstract manner. Releasing the shackles in this way takes Bower’s sound and vision beyond the conventions of metal, doom and drone that he had already radicalised from the first notes of Form Destroyer, de-contextualising these genres by unhinging them into pure harsh noise. In Matthew Bower’s pursuit of the fine balance between bliss and assault, of the terrifying sublime, something hindsight shows he’s probably been working on since the eighties but has been crystallising since Orange Canyon Mind, he quite probably never came as close as he does on Tribulation.
Pure Imperial Reform (Turgid Animal, 2008) & The Paris Working (23/4/2009) (self-released, 2009)
In the wake of Tribulation, Bower would kick into overdrive, with a slew of limited edition and/or live releases, such as Abyssic Lowland Hiss and Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Die, often self-released. Most of these are hard to track down, and, whisper it, probably not essential to the appreciation of the Skullflower story.
However, I have managed to get my hands two of these off-the-cuff releases, both live ones, and, for a purist such as myself, they have a “holy grail”-esque feeling, mostly because I have not yet had the chance to see Skullflower live and worship at the altar of Matt Bower and his guitar (I was fortunate to see him as part of his duo Voltigeurs, which was pretty sublime in itself, and certainly an extension of the Skullflower sound of recent years).
Of the two, I ever-so-slightly prefer the more recent Paris Working (23/4/2009) CD-R, which features a full band line-up, including Dennison, plus fellow guitarist Lee Stokoe (of Culver) and Voltigeurs’ Samantha Davis, who appears to play strings and guitar. It was released in the wake of the superb Malediction album (more on it below), which also featured the aforementioned line-up, and of which this is very much a companion piece. As a live experience, I find it captivating. The opening seconds feature the muffled sounds of the band gearing up, but within moments they have gone from this near-silence to a perfect wall of sound, in which muted violin drones line up alongside buzzing, shapeless guitar noise, all underpinned by Dennison’s shifting, shaking, scattered back-beat. I am always in awe of the latter’s ability to display the deftness of touch of a seasoned jazz man whilst keeping things heavy and manic at the same time. As such, The Paris Working feels very much like a pure improv session, as if Skullflower are channeling the spirits of Derek Bailey and Throbbing Gristle into their darkly metallic drone edifice. It’s another hardy reminder of the band’s ability to meld volume with elegance and mystery. Oh, to have been in the audience that night!
Pure Imperial Reform in contrast, feels slightly less coherent, though it is certainly no less virulent and soaring. In the grand tradition of Harmonia‘s Live 1974 album or the likes of Les Rallizes Denudes and Keiji Haino, the audience supposedly present for this show is inaudible, either drowned out by the pure wall of sound, or too enraptured to speak. In the tradition of most recent Skullflower albums, there is no starting point on the album, even in the live setting, the disc just fading into a deluge of guitar feedback, from the twin assault of Bower and Lee Stokoe, his most frequent post-2003 collaborator. Three tracks here, rather unhelpfully merged into one on the CD, which makes differentiation and appreciation of each track’s intricacies a bit tricky. Essentially, Pure Imperial Reform follows on from Tribulation, with noisy guitar squalls completely unhinged from any rhythmic or traditionally melodic frame that could allow listeners to contextualise and absorb what they’re hearing. Instead, like the best harsh noise, this is music that you are forced to endure, and then lose yourself in, as Bower and Stokoe fumble their way through unending solos and feedback. The Wire writers have made a lot of Bower’s apparently bloody-minded desire to conjure up some sort of darkly ritualistic, tantric and cosmic transcendence in his music, the aforementioned “terrifying sublime”, which goes beyond the noise and black metal Skullflower originated out of, as if tying My Bloody Valentine to SUNN O))). I still feel he achieved this best on Tribulation, but Pure Imperial Reform and The Paris Working are great examples of it happening before the eyes of an adulating audience (turned followers?). Lucky bastards.
Taste The Blood of the Deceiver (Not Not Fun, 2008)
Taste the Blood of the Deceiver (what a title!) followed hot on the heels of the Tribulation-esque Desire for a Holy War (Utech Records, 2008), which didn’t do much for me, seeming to be just a set of outtakes from its predecessor, but which I probably need to track down a CD copy of at some point (the artwork is stunning!). This time, Bower and Stokoe rock up on weird American label Not Not Fun, home of Pocahaunted and, more aptly, perhaps, Robedoor. Recently, the label has become the home of America’s foremost hypnagogic pop and neo-New Age artists, but Taste the Blood of the Deceiver sees Skullflower continue to probe at the sublimation of brutal noise that has so preoccupied Matthew Bower of late. The Wire’s David Keenan has noted that recent Skullflower works, worshipping at the altar of that most heathen of instrumental gods, the electric guitar, are increasingly tainted by black metal of the sort popularised in Norway in the early nineties, those stark, aggressive, saturated paeans to diseased minds and arcane rituals. As such, even if a lot of Skullflower’s music is anchored in a noise tradition, it tends towards a sweeping, dramatic post-goth theatricality.
Such ambition was evident on Tribulation, but the Wagnerian majesty was dissolved into a brittle noise texture that only really found an echo in black metal via the portentous song titles. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver really feels like metal music untethered, like a fire-damaged boat drifting aimlessly through deep, hostile waters. Bower and Stokoe remove the human sense of self that, for all its dark musings and satanic worship, is at the heart of black metal. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is portentous and dramatic, yes, but Skullflower’s take on the guitar sound, equally lo-fi and enveloping, with the simultaneous never-ending emphasis on certain notes and edification of impenetrable sound walls, and the disconnected, abstract and sparing use of vocals elevate the sound on this album to something Keenan has even compared to “magick”. Whilst I do not know enough about such occultist things to properly analyze such a take, I remain in awe at the transcendent power of this music. Along with Tribulation, Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is my favourite post-reformation Skullflower album.
Shortly after this, Bower released a monstrous 3-CD set called Circulus Vitiosus Deus on Turgid Animal. A limited edition, it has since sold out and is near-impossible to find, an especial downer for me as I would relish the chance to check out the supposedly beautiful artwork and packaging. Sad face…
Malediction (Second Layer Records, 2009)
Malediction is something of a curve ball, really, featuring, as I mentioned, a full band line-up, which really is not something seen on a Skullflower album since the mid-nineties (previous noughties albums tended to be composed of Matthew Bower + one or more collaborators, and Tribulation was a solo affair). However, anyone expecting Malediction to be a step backwards would be mistaken – for starters, like just about every other Skullflower album since Orange Canyon Mind, this one also starts in the midst of the maelstrom. Bower’s tendency to refuse to allow build-up or gradual immersion into his world (even on live albums, as Pure Imperial Reform showed) is remarkable, and a key part of his current musical exploration of late. In many ways, it reflects the misanthropy of noise music, a genre he has neither properly extirpated himself from, yet equally never sat comfortably in. Thus, where Whitehouse or Prurient might articulate said misanthropy coherently and aggressively, Bower’s reduction of the human interaction in his music (he often -though not here- refuses to credit himself or others on Skullflower recordings) seems more distant, metaphysical. In a pursuit of something more elegiac, Bower has diffused the humane behind a wall of saturation and feedback, but rather than a rejection of the humane in music, it seems to be an attempt at transporting the psyche of his listeners to somewhere more esoteric, and celestial. Whether he achieves this is ultimately down to you.
It is no different on Malediction, though the heavily-prominent presence of Stuart Dennison’s ramshackle drums, Samantha Davies’ distorted strings and Lee Stokoe’s added layers of guitar; plus a grimly apocalyptic quote from John Webster in the packaging, give this album a warmth Bower had until now seemed determined to annihilate. I do not share The Wire reviewer Nick Richardson’s belief that the dramatic track titles and doom-laden ambiance of this album are, and I quote, “silly”. I do not know enough about the occult, magick or satanism to properly comment on Bower’s approach to them, but my feeling is that this is serious “head” music, the kind of attempt to conjure dark and primordial forces that has long dominated the metal and drone scenes, particularly in the US, but which stems from traditions going back centuries. Skullflower, being British, seem more detached, as they disconnect their sound from clear references, preferring to let themselves -and us- be absorbed by the music. Not silly, try transcendent. A great album, a bit of a UFO, between the free metal of Obsidian Shaking Codex and more recent explorations in black metal doom.
Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament (Neurot, 2010)
The Skullflower formula of recent years has now, you’ll have gathered, been well established, as dis-articulated guitar noise is built up into walls of unstoppable, indifferent sound, which are then launched, untethered and unreferenced, on the band’s audiences. Increasingly, this has seen Bower blur the lines between Skullflower and his other acts, be they Hototogisu or, more recently, Voltigeurs, his guitar noise duo with Samantha Davies. In fact, Voltigeurs (whom I had the pleasure, nay, delight of seeing live) are very similar in sound to the Skullflower of Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament, but with perhaps a more “wall noise” structure. But I digress…
The concern I have is that Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament feels somewhat like a closing statement, first of all through its incredible length (nearly two hours spread over two CDs), and also because it seems to be an attempt to crystallize the dark ritual nature of recent Skullflower albums to an almost absolutist degree, as tracks meld into one another and any distinction between instruments is rendered impossible. It still retains the grandeur of the black metal that supposedly inspires Bower these days, but he pushes the formlessness, the impenetrability, to the nth degree, making Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament his most difficult album yet. The somber, literary track titles (“Enochian Tapestries”, “City of Dis”, “Blackened Angel Wings Scythe The Billowing Void”) hint at occult arcana, but I am happy to just let the noise absorb and wash over me. I hope that this will not be the last Skullflower album (and have no reason to believe it will be), and, until Matthew Bower next decides to unload a dark, tantrically satanic sonic ritual on my adoring ears, I’ll be waiting, clutching my Skullflower CDs, assaulting my senses with the doom-laden metal of Xaman, the hysterical free-jazz-cum-hard-heavy of Carved Into Roses and the sheets of transcendent noise of Tribulation, a senseless grin on my face. ALL HAIL THE GUITAR, THE AMP, AND MATTHEW BOWER!!!
I’m aware that this long, rambling, repetitive and probably incoherent piece maybe does not do justice to the majesty, elegance and fiery fury of Skullflower. I’m aware that there may be historical inaccuracies and gaping holes that all my web scouring could not enable to rectify. I can only hope that, one day, I might be able to meet the people involved in this magnificent journey, and interview them to get the insider’s view on the Skullflower story. Until then -and many might argue that the mystery is part of this singular band’s appeal- I can only give my honest appraisal of what I know. Which is that Skullflower, for all their familiar references in industrial, power electronics, doom, shoegaze, noise and black metal, are a unique proposition, the sincere, disturbed and metaphysical expression of one man’s gloriously primeval vision. And if words like “tantric” or “transcendent” mean fuck-all to you, then whip out a copy of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Malediction, turn the dial up to maximum, and allow the sonic genius of Skullflower to sweep you away on a river of noise. I promise you won’t regret it.